Dear Time Magazine: Seriously?

Dear Time Magazine:

If you’re wondering why I don’t pick on Newsweek, here’s the reason. It’s hard to take them seriously anymore (Especially after the Princess Di cover).

You, on the other hand, have a long and distinguished record. You have a remarkable publishing pedigree and are still considered the number one domestic newsweekly of record.

Because this is primarily a blog about single copy sales, let me first congratulate you on what will most likely be a successful strategy with your cover image this week. No doubt, your unit sales will show a significant increase. I bet you’ll sell out at most airports. Your bookstore sales will be through the roof. And for the first time in a long time, whatever remaining checkout pockets you have in supermarkets or drugstores will pay for themselves.  The cover image was trenchant, obvious, controversial, linked to an article that didn’t need to be controversial, but will be but not because of it’s content, but because of the cover image.

Congratulations! You sold out and stirred the pot! On Mother’s Day Weekend.

It’s just too bad that you decided to try and reignite the “Mommy Wars” during an election year?

I mean, #Comeonson! Really? A four year old boy standing on a chair breast feeding? A cover line “Are you Mom Enough?” Released on Mother’s Day weekend? Props to your marketing department! I bet what’s left of your single copy sales department will be tired come the end of the week.

But was it necessary? Was it newsworthy?

Feminists often talk about a persons “agency.” I understand this to mean that a person has the ability to make their own choices and accept the responsibility for them. Women, in particular, should have agency when it comes to the home, work, child rearing. How they carry children, choose to birth to them,  nourish them in their earliest years, should primarily be their decisions. After all, in all of those cases, the child will be a part of mother’s body and it is her body. It should be her choice. Who are we to judge? In the long history of this world, can we really point to one time in history and say “These people did it right?

After all, I think it was the Mayans who used wooden planks to shape their children’s heads. They approved of that.

The Romans, who our Founding Fathers revered, “exposed” unwanted children (Something now guaranteed to get you on the 11:00 news).

There was really nothing in that article that screamed “cover story” as I read it. There is nothing in the article that suggests a full out revolution of “attachment” parenting. While the article is interesting, it is not revolutionary.

Apparently the retailers who carry the magazine have yawned, said, “No big deal” and moved on. While this is an improvement over what has happened in past years, it makes me wonder: Is it because the image wasn’t considered “controversial”? Or was it because we’ve finally managed to make the retail marketing of magazines that much more marginal?

So good luck with your increased sales. Will people remember the story of Dr. Sears a week from now? Nope, but they may remember the mom breastfeeding a four year old. They may remember sudden flare up on blogs covering the “Mommy Wars.”

In other words, they will have missed the point.

Social Power, Personal Power, and Seventeen Magazine

The final outcome of this story will tell us if the editors of Seventeen Magazine listened to their readers. But the beginning of the story really tells the tale of what the future of reader influence and input could look like in the world of magazine publishing. That is because this is the story about what the publishing world looks like when creative readers try to influence the editorial direction of a favorite magazine.

Eighth grader and Seventeen reader Julia Bluhm was concerned about the use of photoshopped images of girls in the magazine. She and others felt that the images did not represent real teen girls and sent the wrong message about what young women should look like (Editor’s Note: This father of young women agrees). A blogger and member of the SPARK Movement, Julia set up a petition on line that quickly gained the attention of the Huffington Post and the UK’s Daily Mail. She also gained more than 50,000 signatures to her petition.

Julia then decided to make her point more personal and direct. She traveled to Manhattan and camped outside the headquarters of Seventeen where she and other supporters from around the country staged a mock photo shoot. Just some everyday American girls in street clothes being themselves.

The May cover of Seventeen Magazine featuring actress Chloe Grace Moretz.

Was the protest successful? Reports say that editor in chief Ann Shoket invited Julia up to her office to discuss her concerns. Seventeen later issued this statement:

“We’re proud of Julia for being so passionate about an issue – it’s exactly the kind of attitude we encourage in our readers… We believe that Julia left understanding that Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that’s how we present them.”

So, no word on whether or not Seventeen will begin featuring “real girls” in their magazine or if editor Shoket used the power of her position to persuade Julia to reconsider her stance.

Probably not. The New York Times interviewed Julia and reported how she saw girls portrayed in the magazine:

“I look at the girls, and a lot of them, like, they don’t have freckles, or moles, anywhere on their bodies,” she said. “You can’t, like, see the pores in their face, they’re perfectly smooth. Their skin is shiny. They don’t have any tan lines or cuts and bruises or anything like that.”

One reason I like this story is because a gutsy teenage girl broke the teenage girl stereotype, took possession of an issue that meant something important to her, gathered some like minded people together, and did something creative about it. This is a story about readers who used social media to connect and state their concerns about a magazine they loved.

They could have stopped there. Our cynicism trains us to expect nothing more from today’s teenagers. But these kids beat expectations by taking that keyboard connection a step further and made it personal. They made it so personal their leader was invited to sit down with the magazine’s editor. How often does that happen? In this magazine professional’s mind, not nearly enough.

Will Seventeen feature an “no retouch” spread in the June issue? Will they show girls with freckles and splotches? Will the boys have 6-packs or look like or just look like regular teenaged boys?

It would be nice if they did. I won’t hold my breath but I am hopeful. Fourteen year old Julia Bluhm just showed them how powerful social media really is because good social media, good social action,  good social theater is incredibly personal.

A well edited magazine is supposed to be personal too. You can’t photoshop that, by the way.

Is our DNA Keeping the Newsstand Industry From Making a Sale?

A longtime friend and colleague has often said that “ Single copy sales is a very simple, practical, complicated, business.”

He’s right. The goal is simple. Sell stuff.

No sale here

It’s the selling of the stuff (magazines), however, that is often complicated. Product has to be shipped at just the right time. The content has to look appealing. It has to be displayed just so. It has to get to just the right mix of stores in just the right quantities so that all the links in the chain can make some money from the sale (A lot of people dip into that $4.99 cover price before the publisher takes the final cut).

All along the way, one simple blooper, one simple slip up can mean the difference between front shelf displays or a missed on-sale date. Between a small profit, break even, or a loss.

Some things are unavoidable. Adults who conduct business prepare for mishaps and deal with them. You know what you have to do when the printer mis-ships sub copies to a wholesaler. You’re going to have to sticker new UPC codes onto the cover and it will cost you. If the road to the break up agent gets washed out in a tornado, you’re going to have a delayed shipment. If the union at the grocery chain goes on strike, you may have trouble getting your product in the door. If your editorial and art team once again decided not to include you in the cover reviews and produced a stinker for what is supposed to be the biggest issue of the year…Well, that happens.

We handle that all the time.

What’s strange is the strange, the absurb, the unusal roadblocks that we now place in front of ourselves on a daily basis. How did this come about?

Here’s some examples from my daily notes. All every day occurrences that make this publisher’s representative and his colleagues (many of these were shared with me by my colleagues) wonder if we really, truly, honestly want to sell stuff anymore.

  • Require new retail authorizations to buy a “Promotion” or pay extra RDA (Retail Display Allowance) in order to gain authorization to the chain.
  • Have wholesalers deny access to any more than 10% of the newly authorized chain account (even though the market is much bigger) because….well, “because”.
  • Lose a chain authorization that you paid up front promotional monies for after one year because you were denied access to the proposed distribution by your servicing wholesalers issue after issue after issue because your sales did not meet the threshold….well, “because.”
  • Have your national distributor send out “distribution assignments” without your pre-approval or knowledge.
  • Have the national distribution assignment that did not meet your approval include competitive titles and/or goals that do not meet your publishers goals, objectives or competitive titles.
  • Have a cover review meeting with your publisher, editor and art team. At the close of the meeting have the art director note that “This was a waste a time.” and “In a year we’re going to be all digital anyway so who cares what the newsstand cover looks like.”
  • Have your circulation department spend hours re-keying sales data from industry information suppliers, wholesalers and national distributors because each link in the chain provides data in a different format and none of them match how you review and interpret the data.
  • Sit in a meeting and listen to an editor berate the “middle men” who suck all the profit from magazines. “We’d be better off dealing with Amazon and Apple,” he proclaims, “That’s where all the kids go anyway.” He neglects to connect the dots. Apple and Amazon are “middle men.” They sell other people’s stuff for a cut.
  • Pay tens of thousands of dollars in promotional monies in order to achieve circulation targets and have those targets washed away almost immediately in “scale back” allotments that do not take into account actual sales in promoted accounts.
  • Have your distribution managed by individuals who are not familiar with your title, it’s regional strengths, it’s seasonality, or the editorial content of your magazine.

IPDA released an encouraging report this week from Kable Media’s Jim Roberts detailing the interesting and innovative things some of their clients are doing in order to maintain and grow their single copy sales.

Right now, I am in the middle of a pretty extensive relaunch effort with a multi decades old publisher. The publisher has partnered up with some web based entrepreneurs who like the melding of print and digital and they are excited about their prospects on the newsstand. People still want to do this. This is good.

Doug Stephans, the president of consulting firm Retail Prophet, asked in his blog post last week, “Is the companys DNA killing your brand?” In his post, Stephans examines the numerous missteps that Avon cosmetics has made since the later part of the 20th century and their inability to adapt to new retail challenges and the 21st century’s trends in social media and retail marketing.

This is a piece of our DNA

Is our own industry’s DNA is hurting our ability to sell our product? Have we mutated into something that hurts our ability to grow? Four links in a distribution chain with differing methods of measuring sales and financial success. Perhaps our industry DNA is so mutated after all the changes in the past two decades that we’ve lost sight of our one simple goal:

Sell magazines.

Editor’s Note: This post sat in my edit que for about six days. Since it’s first draft, others in our industry have also written about our struggles to get out of our own way. 

I’d encourage you to read John Harrington’s  excellent history of how the newsstand business consolidated in the 1990’s via BoSacks.com.

For additional perspective from another industry consultant, check out Linda Ruth’s additional thoughts on magazine display by clicking on the link above.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can improve our industry.

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